I was recently reading an article about coconut oil on a mainstream nutrition website, and on it a cardiologist warned against coconut oil because it is saturated fat. I immediately thought about how we have come such a long way, yet so many physicians, dietitians, and others are not really up to date on the latest research. Maybe that’s because it wouldn’t benefit the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture cholesterol medications.
If a cardiologist can be misled about fat, how many other people are avoiding coconut oil because of it’s saturated fat content? That’s why I decided it would be important for people to really understand what coconut oil is and how it can be used.
Coconut oil is different from animal saturated fats. Saturated fats are not bad; in fact, they are beneficial. The key, though, is getting a good ratio of fats – saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated all should be fairly balanced. Another important indicator is the ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids. The higher the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, the less inflammation you will have.
Balancing fats is perhaps one of the most important dietary tasks. Check this article out for more details on that. The point of me referencing that article is that I am NOT suggesting you replace all of your fats with coconut oil. Coconut oil is one of those things that I think is great to use in balance with other fats. If you look at my recipe for curried coconut spinach, it contains some coconut fat (although the product is actually whole, organic coconut flesh which is less refined) balanced with olive oil and other natural ingredients.
Most people think that coconut oil is bad for you (or should be eaten sparingly) because of its saturated fat content. It seems that even the link between saturated fat and heart disease is shaky. Opinions are slowly changing about coconut oil and here are some interesting reasons why:
1. Virgin Coconut Oil might help with your blood pressure. A study published in Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine was done on rats comparing palm oil that had been repeatedly heated up to virgin coconut oil. The palm oil was supposed to mimic the effects of fried foods because many fried foods are cooked in reused oil that is repeatedly heated up. Heating oils and fats repeatedly or too much is generally a bad idea because it creates trans fats, the nastiest, ugliest, most horrible fats out there, AND it causes oxidative agents which create chain reactions of havoc that only antioxidants can fix. American culture can show that fried foods generally lead to high blood pressure, which can then lead to stroke, heart disease, kidney disease, etc. The rats fed the multiple-heated palm oil had significantly higher blood pressure than those fed just coconut oil and even the rats fed coconut oil and multiple-heated palm oil.
2. Coconut oil contains an abundance (a little less than half) of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). “MCT oil” is actually fed to patients in the hospital when they are really sick and need some calories that won’t stress their bodies too much. MCTs go straight to the liver to provide instant, easy-to-use energy. It is not stored as fat like other saturated fats, and it doesn’t go through the lipoprotein process, which is what animal saturated fat does that raises your LDL and total cholesterol (which is NOT a good indicator of risk of heart disease, in my opinion) There is some shaky evidence that replacing fats with MCT oil can help with weight loss; I haven’t tried it and haven’t recommended it, so I don’t know.
3. Coconut oil may or may not decrease your waist size. A couple of small scale studies (here, here) have shown this association, but I am the first to admit that this doesn’t prove anything. I am certainly not saying you should add coconut oil as a supplement to your diet to lose weight; this would just add calories which makes no sense. I am saying, however, that if you can replace shortening or regular butter with coconut oil, that is probably a positive change. This may be due to the MCT oil, but more studies are needed to draw conclusions.
4. Coconut oil does not necessarily raise your LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol, but it does not necessarily lower it, either. Some studies have found modest benefits to LDL from coconut oil (here, here, here), while others show no benefit at all. The studies that show a benefit, however, are studies in which coconut oil was replacing animal saturated fat (probably because the animal saturated fat is from GMO, grain-fed cows and pigs).
5. Just to wrap things up, coconut oil isn’t bad and it isn’t the next best weight loss solution. I think it is much better than shortening which contains trans fat. I think it’s somewhat better than the butter or fatty meats you buy from a typical grocery store. It’s definitely better than foods fried in refined vegetable oils. That is why I use it in my cooking; but not for every fat I use. I also use lots of olive oil, eat nuts or nut butters daily, eat fatty fish regularly, and incorporate other natural fats into my diet.
If this article has been helpful to you, post a comment below and let me know what your plan is for using coconut oil! There are so many uses and I would love to hear some more!
(This article was originally posted on Sept 3, 2013, but was updated on Nov 11, 2013)